Walking the Plank: Pat Mundus

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Capt. Pat Mundus grew up in Montauk, New York, at the east end of Long Island. The daughter of legendary shark hunter Frank Mundus (said to be the inspiration for the character Quint in the movie Jaws), she spent much of her childhood afloat and, after high school, shipped off to the Caribbean for a few years to crew sailboats and yachts. In 1981 she graduated from SUNY Maritime College-Fort Schuyler.

Photo by Peter Brauné.

Mundus spent 17 years as an Exxon oil tanker deck officer, running ships in North America and the Middle East. She retired in 1997 and spent a decade restoring her ketch, Surprise, now part of a charter fleet she operates from Greenport, New York (eastendcharters.com). She sails south each winter to the Bahamas and was most recently honored as the grand marshal of Greenport’s 2015 Maritime Festival.

First memory of being on a boat: I was not a yacht-club kid. I grew up on Montauk fishing boats, and my family lived on what my father brought home to eat. Each fall, we went bass fishing so we could stock up the freezer for the winter. It’s burned into my memory, that downwind trolling in the rip with diesel exhaust pouring over the transom and my father yelling “Jig! Jig! Jig! Keep jigging!”

First boat you owned: I was dying to learn to sail as a teenager, which was not easy in a fishing port. After mastering a commandeered Sunfish, I bought a wooden Lightning.

Last or current boat: Surprise is my present boat, a 1967 F. Spaulding Dunbar ketch. She’s 50 feet on deck and 57 feet overall, heavily built with 2-inch longleaf yellow pine bottom planking, 1-5/8-inch mahogany topsides, and 3-inch white oak frames. In the 15 years I’ve owned her, she’s had the benefit of a laddered restoration. The boat’s been refastened, and she received new tanks, wiring, plumbing, through-hull fittings, rubrails, rigging and main mast. Surprise is reliable and very comfortable. She has a 44-foot waterline, so she reaches along smartly. Her deck and interior layout, long straight keel, shallow draft, long waterline and low center of effort all add up to a sensible cruising design. It suits my temperament. It’s not at all fussy.

Favorite boat you’ve owned: I owned an engineless 28-foot ketch, a Herreshoff Rozinante, for over a decade, and my husband and I cherished our mindful simple cruising out to Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. There was nothing to break down or fix, no calls to technical support, no waiting dockside for repairs. The bilges were always clean and fresh without any mechanicals or oil on board, and the boat felt like a body part after sailing her everywhere under all conditions. We sailed into and out of more narrow entrance channels than I care to admit, with people yelling to us, “Turn on your engine!” Ha! That boat was lovely to sail.

Your dream boat: If I were wealthier so I could keep both boats, I’d dream of taking my Rozinante back for the pure pleasure of sailing in the evening. There’s nothing like sailing a slender little double-ender with low freeboard at the end of the day.

Most rewarding professional experience: I worked as a ship’s deck officer for 17 years. The efficiency of a shipboard routine and the harmony of a bridge team cooperating under pressure are tremendously rewarding. The ships I worked on were oil tankers, and I still retain a fondness for the earlier low-tech steamships. Now that I’m retired, I work with charter yachts at my own company, East End Charters. The reward now comes from showing guests how to relax and to be comfortable on board and how to enjoy the simple pleasures of just being out in a clean, natural environment. I do a lot of mentoring, too, with young captains and summer interns. Seeing that first glow of “I did it!” competency on a young person’s face is fantastically rewarding. I sometimes wonder who gets more out of it, them or me.

Scariest adventure at sea: We were making our way south from Valdez, Alaska, to San Francisco on an older tanker, steaming along on a calm summer day. Suddenly the ship started violently thrashing up and down. Struggling to get to the bridge, I passed the chief engineer, who was wild-eyed and yelling. He shouted to the young fellow on the operating flat,“Shut the mother down!” The third assistant engineer yelled back in the chaos, “But chief, we ARE shut down!” I kept to my own struggle, as scared and perplexed as the chief. I was trying to get up to the wheelhouse. When I opened the chart room door, a wall of opaque orange flooded my vision. I brailed my way through it into the wheelhouse and, finding no one up there, kept on toward the starboard bridge wing, where the captain and chief mate were anxiously searching over the side. Did we hit something? Did we lose a blade off the prop? The quick-release life rings had let go in the commotion, pulling the pins on the signaling canisters and filling the bridge with orange smoke. At that moment we heard a shaky, panicked voice from another ship on the VHF radio, saying, “Stand clear, we are a tanker with a fire in the engine room. We’re experiencing excessive vibration!” The captain, the mate and myself all stared at each other and mouthed the same word simultaneously: earthquake!

Most memorable experience aboard: Falling in love at sea.

Longest time you’ve spent aboard: I was on a ship for 35 days going around the Cape of Good Hope from the Persian Gulf to Rotterdam. My longest passage on a yacht was 11 days trans-Atlantic from St. John’s, Newfoundland, to Falmouth, England.

Favorite destination so far: It IS better in the Bahamas. I love the Exuma chain. It’s clean, has great reefs and sandy beaches, and is simultaneously both remote but close enough to the U.S. mainland to come and go with ease.

Favorite nautical book: A Sailor’s Life by Jan de Hartog.

Favorite nautical cause you support and why: The Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County marine program. I love the richness of our marshes as breeding grounds and nurseries. Cornell has a program called Back to the Bays, which supports our local eastern Long Island marine environment. They are supportive of eel grass planting and preserving the meadows in Peconic Bay and Long Island Sound. They celebrate the return of healthy, clean waters through education. They also support aquaculture and nurture the return of the shellfish farming industry. This is a distinctive part of my homeport’s identity — Greenport grows a lot of oysters.

Favorite quote about the sea: I’m a SUNY Maritime graduate, so I’ll be loyal. It’s the mariner’s quote that, 34 years later, I still have on the tip of my tongue: “The sea is selective, slow in its recognition of effort and aptitude, but fast in sinking the unfit.” — Felix Riesenberg

This article originally appeared in the November 2015 issue.